Germany's Bundesliga is great, but not for the reasons you'd think
The execution isn't always perfect and the emotion is perhaps still too raw, but watching the emergence of a new talent is one of the few magical moments left in soccer. At a time when the sport is drowning in super teams, inconceivable fees and a drive for entertainment over all else, it's worth recognizing where you can reliably watch the next generation of stars. In European football, the Bundesliga is that place.
"We're sensitive when we hear the description 'developmental league,'" said Mainz sporting director Rouven Schroder. "People hear the word developmental and think 'inferior,' but we don't have to make ourselves small in front of the Premier League."
Schroder is right. To reduce the Bundesliga to a mere incubator means missing so much of what makes this league enjoyable, namely the power of the fans, the brilliant matchday atmosphere, and, of course, the stars. Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski and Jadon Sancho are three of the most talented players in the world, but it's worth remembering the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Roberto Firmino and Leroy Sane all shone brightly enough in the Bundesliga before earning their big-money moves to the Premier League. It seems odd that this ends up being a subplot in relation to its "developmental league" label.
Nevertheless, seven straight titles for Bayern Munich has created the perception of a one-team league. Considering Ligue 1 and Serie A are also leagues dominated by one team while the Premier League is a two-team race at the top, it is ironic that the Bundesliga is still the first division to be dismissed as lacking a competition problem. Perhaps it's because of the Bundesliga clubs' struggling form in Europe or their inability to keep up with the monstrous growth of Europe's elite sides. Yet to dismiss the Bundesliga would be to miss the point.
The DFL (German Football League) is keen to make the point and have the perfect slogan: "Football as it's meant to be." But what does that look like?
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The DFL's economic report this year shows that for the 14th successive season Germany's top two leagues increased their cumulative revenue. Last season the Bundesliga's revenue totaled $4.2b (€3.81b), almost double the figure from the 2011 season. The report also highlights the economic impact of German football, citing a record payment of taxes and duties to the state as well as having more than 55,000 people directly employed by clubs or their subsidiaries -- the most ever.
Compared to the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, the DFL is the only league that manages data, production, content and sales internally. "We are the only ones who are able to develop, to produce and to distribute," Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert said this year.
Perhaps unwittingly, the business sentiment also applies to the sport itself. Football should be about passion, creativity, development and community, and Germany is getting that balance right. In many ways, the Bundesliga is the college football of European soccer.
It might seem counterintuitive, but Bayern's financial clout and dominance has actually helped the rest of the league, forcing clubs to think differently, scout further, dig deeper into their academies and speed up the revolving door of players. It has created a league of experimentation and unique identities. In the NCAA, Alabama and Auburn may be the biggest programs but their strength encourages other teams to be bold in response. Other teams give young players the chance to play top-flight, first-team football and, in turn, catch the eye of bigger clubs around Europe. Players may come and go in this league but the commitment to development and innovation stays the same.
"That's how we do it and that's how we must do it," Schroder explains. "When Jean-Philippe Gbamin transferred to Everton, our reaction is that the income we received allows us to restructure and rebuild our squad."
Selling Gbamin for a $22.5 million profit allowed Mainz to make smart decisions throughout the club. Intriguingly, the arrival of increased transfer income doesn't automatically result in an increase of outgoings: over the past 10 years, the club have promoted 26 players from both their second team and their U19 team. When investment has been made, it has mostly been made closer to player value: the club's net spend in the transfer market over the last three seasons is $33m. Freiburg managed $4m while Eintracht Frankfurt, aided by this summer, stand at $25m.
While the Bundesliga's transfer windows across the last three seasons have posted a loss of $269m -- Ligue 1 is the only one of Europe's top five leagues to have a profit across the last three windows -- this fee still pales in comparison to the Premier League's $2.92 billion deficit in the same period.
"The player trusts us by deciding, perhaps for less money, to join Mainz because they know the club develops players," Schroder said, speaking in general terms. "If I, as the club, make an approach saying sign for five years because then you can't get away when you play well, then I definitely won't sign players for Mainz. Because they know they're using Mainz as a chance to showcase their talents for perhaps the next step and we profit from that.
"We've found a wonderful niche for us as a club to develop. We've accompanied the player for that part of their life and brought them to the point where, someone like Jean-Philippe joins Everton or Abdou Diallo goes to Dortmund and now Paris. We're proud to be able to say 'he used to play for Mainz.'"
The Premier League's wealth has allowed itself to lean on the developmental efforts of Germany's top flight, for the most part. The self-proclaimed "best league in the world" expects instant impact, which means young players are left with fewer opportunities to develop in the first team. Granted, the Premier League has two more teams than the Bundesliga but average age of a current Premier League squad is close to 27 years old, noticeably higher than the Bundesliga's current average age of 25.5. It's also a noticeable jump from last season for the Premier League, where the average was 24.7 years.
Thus, the Bundesliga has become the preferred talent pool for Europe's leading clubs and those German clubs are richly rewarded for their work as finishing schools. Perhaps no team did better business than Frankfurt this summer. The club was rewarded with €100m for Sebastien Haller and Luka Jovic, two players who had only cost them around €7m each.
Of course, these are just two more recent examples of a trend that has been reality for a while. Roberto Firmino joined Hoffenheim for $4.5m before moving on to Liverpool for $46.7m. Newcastle's No.9 cost them $50m, but Joelinton arrived at Hoffenheim from Brazil for just $2.5m. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was bought by Borussia Dortmund for just under $15m and sold for more than $70m while Ousmane Dembele signed for Dortmund for less than $20m, before leaving for a jaw-dropping $142m.
While there are legitimate concerns for Bundesliga clubs who follow this pattern -- sides that dare to dream in or about Europe one season are often left floundering mid table or worse the following year -- there's no denying that this model can and has worked. As Mainz's Schroder mentioned earlier, it's just about finding a balance.
"I think the fact that we give lots more young players a chance should be celebrated more. It's hugely important for us," Schroder said. "We have far more young players on the pitch and that's important. There's great work being done at youth level in England, just look at their youth teams, but they don't play."
Christian Pulisic's father, Mark, told Penn Live that they chose Dortmund because "Germany's a great country to develop talent." The Bundesliga was able to play a central role in making perhaps the most talented American soccer player of the modern generation great, and Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent and Tyler Adams have followed his path.
The coaching innovation
"We consciously chose a young head coach who knows his stuff and fits the club," said Schroder of 40-year-old Mainz head coach Sandro Schwarz, who also used to play for the club. "I think a lot of clubs see it the same way. I think it might be necessary for this change because we have so many talented Fussball-Lehrer
In Germany, it's much more common for managers get a chance to put their knowledge and valued youth football (often at the same club) experience into practice. In-house development of coaches has become a Bundesliga trend, though to reduce it to that would be to miss the quality of the coaches in question. Julian Nagelsmann (32) got his chance at Hoffenheim, the club where he'd been coaching at youth level. Work at that level is valued beyond the country, too: just look what it did for David Wagner (47), Daniel Farke (42) and Daniel Stendel (45), all of whom got bigger jobs elsewhere.
The average ages of head coaches in the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga may be around the same mark, roughly 48 or 49 years old, but the opportunities set the Bundesliga apart. Seven new head coaches with an average age of 43.8 were appointed for the 2019-20 season. Age really ain't anything but a number here.
At Mainz, it's not just age that is irrelevant. Everyone working at the club recognizes how important the job is, and appreciates that they too are there to make the players feel at home. This family approach echoes the strong community values that many German clubs feel is at the heart of their purpose.
"We give them warmth," Schroder says. "They have to have the feeling that someone understands them at the club. There is so, so much value in having someone at the club they know they can contact. That's so important, because they can all play football."
The fan experience
With clubs fostering a real sense of community, players are given the chance not just to play but also to represent a vocal and proud community. They may not stay forever, but playing in Germany is impactful for all involved.
"I have seen a lot of great players come and go," says Kirstie, a Werder Bremen season ticket-holder. "Our situation is that we are financially stable but cannot pay abnormal amounts for players. Some players get signed or are on loan here and you know they're not gonna stay long. But I can very much enjoy them and their development while they are with us. Seeing Mesut Ozil leave was sad. Seeing the player he has become and knowing Werder had a part in that development makes me proud."
Kristell, a club member at Augsburg, feels the same way. "These talents are effectively our championships. To sell an Augsburg player to the Premier League because he grew up with us is far easier and will happen more often than it will be to win a title. And if he wins a title elsewhere, that's also kind of our achievement too."
While most people who spend one afternoon in Dortmund or Bremen will agree that Germany's top division is currently offering a football experience not drowning in sponsorships, halftime shows or a customer-rather-than-fan feeling, the concern is how much longer that will be the case.
The drive to retain players and be more competitive in Europe has sparked a nationwide discussion about changing some of the central aspects of the game in Germany, notably the 50+1 rule, a clause stating that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights, ensuring the club's members retain overall control, thus protecting the club from the influence of external investors). Doing so would have a wide impact on the game, and would make German clubs vulnerable to the same fate that came for Bury and continues to threaten Bolton. Football fans in both countries are intimately engaged, but the difference in Germany is that that engagement is part of a symbiotic relationship.
Ticket prices would also be at threat. Club members at Wolfsburg can get a season ticket (standing) this season for as little as €100. For Bayern members, it's €145. Borussia Dortmund's waiting list for a season ticket was so popular that after reaching 50,000 applications, it was closed. As demand goes up, the Bundesliga has made sure to keep plenty of money in the pockets of regular match-going fans. That, and many other things, would all change if the 50+1 rule was removed.
The aforementioned concerns surrounding the Bundesliga will likely return as the new season bursts into life, but instead of lamenting these issues, perhaps it is time to simply appreciate what the Bundesliga has that makes it so unique. So many talented players develop into stars here. The league has dramatic moments -- witness Dortmund's 3-1 defeat to Union Berlin -- and entertaining games, like Leverkusen's opening day victory over Paderborn. It has surprise teams, smart coaches and remains an affordable and community-based league for fans.
"We don't need stars, we'd like to make some," says Schroder, with a smile.